Long live the humanities

Omaha Beach

In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, English professor Nina Handler laments the extinction of her species:

Charles Smithson, a character in John Fowles’s 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is a wealthy, idle gentleman who faces the challenge of realizing that he, as a type, is becoming extinct. The novel is set in 1867, and Charles, a devotee of Darwin, considers the recently published On the Origin of Species to be his bible. His social class will cease to exist within a generation, and Charles has both the wisdom to see that he must adapt and the self-awareness to know that he is incapable of it. He is being swept away by evolutionary change but is helpless to change his fate.

I am a college English instructor. This is a bad time for my species — and a bad time for the study of English. In academe, we are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential. I teach at a private university that has just canceled majors in English, religious studies, philosophy, and music. The English major is becoming the useless gentleman, the Charles Smithson, of the modern university.

It’s a disheartening essay, particularly when she points out that as education becomes merely a hoop to jump through in order to find work, the values assigned to that education relate solely to its vocational utility.

I fully understand that, because when I declared for English as my major — way back in the mid-80s — everyone had the same question: “Oh, so you’re going to be an English teacher?” As if getting a bachelor’s degree in the study of literature could not possibly qualify me for anything other than turning around to teach others to study the same thing.

“No,” was my answer.

“Then what?”

“I don’t know.” At the age of 19, how would I know what I planned to do with my life? I thought the point of a university education was to equip me with the tools I could use to figure that out — and for the rest of my days thereafter.

Thirty years ago, most people could not comprehend choosing a university degree that had no immediate and obvious path to employment. I don’t think what Nina Handler is experiencing is new. But I do think it has gotten much worse.

What I know for certain is that my English major taught me critical thinking skills. It taught me philosophy and the universality of human experience. It taught me about worlds, times, and cultures I could never live in, but could visit in my mind. It led me to the realization that I was not just an American, but a citizen of the world living on a tiny point in the vast tide of human history.

As I watch the alarming rise of racism, nationalism, and other-blaming hatred in my home nation, in post-Brexit Britain, and in too many other places, I don’t think it’s the humanities that are in danger. I think it’s what the humanities create: educated citizens of the world who care about more than just themselves. People who see the improvement of others’ lives as a benefit to all, not a threat to their pocketbook or sense of identity. People who respond to differences with curiosity, not fear.

But as a humanities major, I know that all of this has happened before. I know the horrors it can lead to. I also know that humans have approached this brink — and gone over it — time and time again. Yet even in the worst of times, there are brilliant lights of our species’ greatest potential. There are creators of wondrous music, art, and literature. There are scientific breakthroughs. There are people who risk themselves to help others they don’t even know, simply because it is the right thing to do.

If I could go back to my 19-year-old self, I would offer a different answer to that question of “What are you going to do with an English degree?”

I would say: I am going to live a rich, diverse life that takes me places I never expected. And I am going to hope.

Happy holidays to all those who celebrate in their diverse ways.

(I took the photo at top in Normandy, France. Les Breves was sculpted by Anilore Banon, and stands in the sands of Omaha Beach as an homage to the many who died there in order to liberate a captive land. The three sections represent three elements: the Wings of Hope, Rise Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity. Created for a temporary installation, this luminous art has been so popular that it remains indefinitely, a blending of art and nature: humanities at their finest.)

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Posted in culture, life | 12 Comments

MIND BLOWN: the lightning edition

Stop what you’re doing and watch this video. But watch it the right way: full screen, in a darkened room, and with a good sound system turned up.

This is 3:18 minutes of the best lightning footage I’ve ever seen, cut and edited into a jaw-dropping video with music that perfectly complements the drama. After watching it with me, my son said, “I never knew lightning moved that way.”

I said, “No one did until a few years ago. The technology didn’t exist to capture something that moved at the speed of light.”

For me, geek that I am, one of the coolest things about this video is that it exists. I remember when the first footage was made available from a scientific study of lightning that involved a concrete bunker (for sheltering the scientists), an electrical system designed to attract a lightning bolt, and what was then a state-of-the-art slow motion camera. The scientists shot unending amounts of film recording absolutely nothing when their system didn’t attract a bolt, but eventually managed to capture a few important seconds amongst all those hours and hours of footage. Their published article, with accompanying video, changed the body of thought on how lightning traveled.

That wasn’t very long ago — but technology has moved only a little slower than the speed of light.

Photographer Dustin Farrell spent the summer of 2017 chasing storms while toting a 4K camera rig that takes 1000 frames per second of raw, uncompressed footage. (For comparison: most movies are shot at 24 frames per second.) After driving 20,000 miles over a 30-day period, he had recorded 10 terabytes of data, which he then whittled down to 3:18 of spectacular video.

What enabled his success was not just the ultrafast frame rate of modern cameras, but also the recording technology in which a camera constantly records, writes to RAM, then overwrites, and overwrites again…until a button is pressed to save the RAM contents. This is the tech currently used in police body cameras. It’s why, when an officer activates a body cam, the recording actually starts 30 seconds earlier. It’s not that the camera is a time machine, it’s that it is saving the footage already recorded but not yet overwritten.

You can imagine how handy this is in taking video of lightning. Now, instead of “rolling film” for an hour-long storm and waiting for a bolt to happen, Farrell could simply press a button the moment he saw a bolt and voila, he caught it.

So…take a look at what he caught.

(Hat tip to Ally.)

Posted in science, weather | 6 Comments

A side note to Anita Hill’s story

Anita Hill

Many of us are remembering Anita Hill’s trailblazing courage these days, as the dams are breaking and so many women are telling their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

What is rarely recalled now is that the 1991 Senate confirmation vote was a huge fight, with six Democratic senators switching their “yea” votes to “nay” over the weekend after the hearings. It wasn’t enough, and Clarence Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52-48.

Only two Republicans voted against Thomas. One was James Jeffords from Vermont. The other was Bob Packwood from Oregon.

One year later, we Oregonians realized the great irony of Packwood rebelling against his party to prevent a sexual abuser from being seated on the Supreme Court. Ten women, most former lobbyists or Packwood staffers, came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. The Washington Post had the story but held it until after the November election, in which Packwood defeated Democratic challenger Les AuCoin. (I remember that race well.)

For three years, my state was roiled by the ongoing investigation into Packwood. Eventually, a total of 19 women were willing to follow the example of courage that Anita Hill burned into our national consciousness.

Packwood’s diary became a topic of water-cooler conversation and considerable legal wrangling. Could it be subpoenaed, or was it covered by the Fifth Amendment? He eventually turned over 5,000 pages to the Senate Ethics Committee, but when it became obvious that those pages were edited, the committee demanded another 3,200 pages. Packwood refused.

And here is where Packwood made his fatal mistake. Angry at what he perceived as being singled out, he issued a veiled threat to the effect that many others in the Senate had done the exact same thing (which of course we know was true) — and demanded that his hearings be public.

That did not go over well. The Senate Ethics Committee recommended that Packwood be expelled from the Senate “for sexual and official misconduct,” a truly nuclear option that forced Packwood to resign.

In the special election to replace him, Oregon elected then-US Representative Ron Wyden, a Democrat. He has since become a powerful voice for affordable health care, human rights, and civil liberties, while voting against the war in Iraq and the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He has done a great deal to raise awareness of, and attempt to limit, the vast American surveillance state currently spying on its citizens. In short, he has been everything I could hope for in a senator.

Meanwhile, Bob Packwood retired on a comfortable $90,000/year pension with full benefits. For years, I had a printout of one of his diary entries on my office wall, because it was so indicative of the entitled mindset that eventually brought him down. It was from November 8, 1993, and said:

“Well, I did wrong, and I know I did wrong, but I’ve been caught, so I’ll call it misjudgment.”

Posted in history | 3 Comments

Energy disruption

This is a long video at 40 minutes, but it is a fascinating and fast-moving talk on the massive disruptions caused by wind and solar in the electrical power markets, as well as the disruption caused by batteries, tech, and electric vehicles in the oil markets.

There is no way that the CEOs and investors of US coal companies don’t know these statistics. They know that solar and wind are now equal in cost-per-kilowatt-hour to coal, and in the latest bids, far cheaper — even without subsidies. They know their industry will soon be made obsolete due to market pressures.

The current US administration’s behavior in stopping any attempt to regulate the amount of toxic metals (such as arsenic and mercury) that coal plants are allowed to dump in public waterways, and rolling back the Clean Power Plan while declaring “the war on coal is over,” is not about bringing coal jobs back. Those jobs are never coming back, and many more jobs will soon be lost. What those behaviors are really about is enriching the billionaire CEOs and investors. They are cashing out while they can, and they do not give one flying fig about American workers or the environment (national or global). Neither does the administration.

Meanwhile, other nations are going all in on what they can clearly see are the technologies and power sources of the near future. The statistic about China cancelling 104 planned coal power plants ($80 billion in investment) in January of this year is mind boggling. Forty of those plants had already broken ground. “At least $20 billion was just thrown away,” the presenter says, and why would China do that? The Chinese are nothing if not ruthlessly pragmatic.

The US under Trump is looking backward, filling the pockets of the mega-rich while hobbling the nation as other world players take the lead in technology and production. Our loss is the world’s gain, though — and watching this video is one of the most uplifting moments I’ve had this year. It gives me hope.

(Hat tip to TYWKIWDBI.)

Posted in good news, politics, tech | Leave a comment

The gin that changes color

In Monsaraz, one of my favorite Portuguese towns (a walled village atop a hill near the Spanish border — terribly romantic), a boutique gin manufacturer has set up shop.

The gin is called Sharish, and it is worthy. I love Sharish’s standard gin, which is made with a number of botanicals including the locally grown apple variety. The strong hint of apple means that this gin is enhanced with a few slices of apple along with tonic, producing an almost sweet drink.

Sharish also makes a gin called Blue Magic, which contains extract from a flower called the blue pea. It is…distinctive.

Blue gin

As with the standard Sharish, I add a bit of apple to my glass along with the ice…

Blue gin w apple

…and then comes the fun bit. Sharish Blue Magic has a secret up its sleeve. When you mix it with tonic, it changes color.

Blue gin turned pink

And this is why we should all pay attention to our chemistry classes in high school, because really, how cool is that?

Sharish Blue Magic is making a big impression in bars, where bartenders enjoy the easy magic show and customers love the taste (and color) of the drink. I’m guessing we won’t drink it very often, because it’s more expensive than the standard Sharish, and that extra money is solely for the color change. But I do love that apple flavor, so different from every other gin. And now and again, it’s fun to pour in the tonic and watch the show.

On a different but related topic, I’ll be doing a live interview on the Cocktail Hour tonight at 4:00 pm EST (8:00 pm in the London-Lisbon time zone), talking about Outcaste. The two Cocktail Hour hosts and I always have a rollicking time as we chat and they toss questions/opinions at me. We also take questions from viewers — just post them on the YouTube page linked above. (Cocktail Hour shows are also available in podcast form shortly after the interview.)

How is this topic related, you ask? Well, the Cocktail Hour ladies do love their drinks. So I’ll be demonstrating the color change of Sharish Blue Magic Gin for them…and then fueling my end of the interview with a very fine Portuguese gin.

Posted in Portugal | 9 Comments

Announcing the birth of a bouncing baby Book Six

Outcaste book and phone

Outcaste is here, and the reviews are already coming in. Here is one of my favorite comments so far:

The characters of Rahel and Mouse are so beautifully described. Rahel with an unshakeable belief that she will, at some point, get where she wants; and Mouse with such an opposing view — of the futility of having dreams.

Dreams — having them, pursuing them, giving them up, being gifted with them — are at the heart of this story. It’s not an oversight that there are two chapters titled “Dreams.” An entire lifetime passes between those chapters, and the dreams in question lead in different directions.

Rahel Sayana is a protagonist who is not high-born or powerful or extra gifted…yet she is special in the way that all of us can be if we hold on to our dreams and go after them with everything we have. She makes mistakes — big ones! — but her heart is always in the right place, and that heart draws a varied cast of supporting characters who help her on her way. As one of those characters says:

“We live many lives in our time here on Alsea. Hopefully, when we Return, we have a great deal to show for the way we spent our days. I like to think that when it’s my turn to speak to Fahla and tell her what I did with the time she gave me, she will not be bored by the tale.”

Outcaste is a story of the many lives of Rahel Sayana, an ordinary mid empath with big dreams. I think Fahla will not be bored by her tale.

Available at Heartsome Publishing, Amazon, and all major platforms. Paperback available at Amazon.

Posted in writing | 19 Comments

Know your gunfire

I did something today that I never imagined myself doing: I sat down on the sofa with my wife and teen son and played them a video from the Las Vegas mass shooting.

Why? Because my wife and I frequently visit the US, and my son likely will at some point (though he currently shows little desire to, finding my nation baffling and backwards). And at this point in our history, one thing has become obvious.

Anyone going to visit the US should be able to recognize the sound of gunfire.

Even, maybe especially, automatic gunfire. The firing rate in Las Vegas indicates either a fully automatic weapon (one of the only types of guns that is difficult to buy in the US) or a semi-automatic modified with a cheap (less than $100) device to simulate a fully automatic firing rate. The latter is more likely, completely legal, and extremely easy to procure.

Gunfire doesn’t sound like what you hear in the movies or on TV. Unless you’re close to the weapon being fired, it doesn’t have that resonant boom that shakes your subwoofer during an action scene. It sounds like a little pop. “Like firecrackers,” is what witnesses often say. In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, it sounded like a whole lot of pops, a whole string of firecrackers.

(I originally wrote “the most recent mass shooting,” but that is already out of date. Three people died and two were injured in another mass shooting in Lawrence, Kansas yesterday.)

People die because they don’t recognize this sound. They don’t immediately duck and run. I now consider the ability to recognize gunfire a basic safety requirement before crossing the US border.

My son said, “The United States: zero days since the last mass shooting.” Americans, this is how our nation is viewed by the developed world. Except the truth is, we should set that counter at hours, not days. Over the past five years, the US has averaged a mass shooting 9 out of every 10 days.

This shooting was horrific. Families will be torn apart and grieving. Many victims will need long-term care; many others who weren’t injured will need trauma counseling that most of them won’t be able to afford.

But nothing will change, because selling guns and selling fear is making a lot of people very rich — from the manufacturers to the right-wing media stars to the lobbyists to the legislators they buy and the parasites who live off them.

Listen to this sound. If you live in or plan to visit the US, you should be able to recognize it.

EDITED TO ADD: YouTube took down the video I linked to, but it was made by the Guardian, which still has it up. It’s at the top of this page of ongoing updates.

Posted in USA | 3 Comments

Go phish

I rarely see spam arriving in my email, due to the very good spam filters employed by both of the email services I pay for. But every now and again, something slips through.

This morning, I opened my mail program and found this in the junk folder:

Phish3

*****

This is a phishing attempt — a scam designed to get me to click that “Review & Secure your account” link and give away my email login information, or to land on a website that injects malware into my computer.

I have to give credit where it’s due; the social engineering on this is quite good. It’s simple and plays right into our (justifiable) fears about being hacked. It alarms the recipient with straightforward language. It provides an almost irresistible “easy fix” — just click that blue box and everything will be fine.

But it has a few telltale flaws that give it away.

THE GIVEAWAYS

1. Typo

The first sentence should read, “We detected something unusual about a recent attemptED sign-in…” or perhaps “…a recent attempt TO sign in…”

But this is pretty nitpicky, and perhaps no one but an editor would feel their eyeballs snap to it. Also nitpicky is the fact that normal business language does not include exclamation points (“…a malicious user might be trying to access your account!”). So let’s move on to the bigger giveaways.

2. No indication that this is from either company I pay to handle my email.

Good phishing attempts will try to fool a victim with a perfect company logo, usually of one of the big free services such as Gmail. Since I don’t use those, I’m hard to hit that way.

3. The scammer didn’t know that this email address is not an account.

It’s an alias — an email address that is tied to my account but is not the actual address of record for that account. I can change it at any time without affecting my real email address. I can have multiple aliases tied to the same account. And I do.

This is something I would strongly recommend for everyone. Most decent email services include aliases as an option, and they’re usually simple to set up. I always use an alias for online shopping, for instance. When the spam targeting that alias gets out of hand, I simply delete the alias and create a new one. BAM goes the spam, straight into a brick wall. The address it’s targeting no longer exists. But my account is untouched.

4. The link behind that tempting blue box is not my email service.

In fact, it’s not a service at all. It’s this (I have taken out the https and the .com parts to break the link):

daleshearer [dot] com.au/1/1/?email=[my email alias]

“.au” is the top-level domain for Australia. Did you know that Dale Shearer is a former professional rugby player in Australia? Somehow I don’t think he’s attempting to scam me, but someone is using his name to do so. Might be an inside joke, but it certainly doesn’t help the scammer.

There are several ways to view the address behind a link. In Apple Mail, I can hover my mouse over it to bring up a floating box that reveals the address. Some email clients will respond to a mouse-hover by showing the address in a status bar at the bottom of the window. Often, you can also right click the link to see a contextual menu from which you can choose “copy link.” You can then paste that onto a note, blank email, or open document. This is a few more steps, but it enables you to view the address in a safe place.

Always, always view the true address before ever clicking a link, no matter how official or “right” it might appear. And look closely at the revealed address. Not all of them are so obviously fake as this one. Many use the trick of incorporating a company name, but the full address will still have some giveaways in it, usually by being much longer than, say, “mail.google[dot]com/mail” (the actual URL for Gmail). It might be “mail.officialstuff.google.moreofficialstuff[dot]com” instead. Remember, the big companies pay for those short, easily-remembered addresses. If it’s not short and simple, it’s probably not real.

And that concludes today’s public service announcement. Let’s be careful out there!*

_____

* gratuitous Hill Street Blues reference

Posted in tech | Leave a comment

Outcaste is coming!

I’ve just looked back at the date of my last blog post and wow, how did two months go by? It’s been a crazy summer, what with editing one novel and writing another, working with a new artist for Chronicles of Alsea artwork, settling in with a new publisher, and trying not to completely abandon my family in the process. (Opinions vary as to my success in that last one.)

I left my previous publisher early this year and was delighted to join up with Heartsome Publishing, a boutique outfit that embraces the “boutique” part of the name. They do not want to acquire a large stable of authors, but are instead focused on fully developing a small number of hand-picked authors.

In keeping with that, they found a fabulous cover artist for me and I could not be more pleased with the cover of Book Six in the Chronicles of Alsea: OUTCASTE.

With my prior publisher, cover art design was frequently an exercise in disappointed hopes. What I saw in my head was so much richer than what ended up on the covers (though I really like the cover for Vellmar the Blade — and it’s probably not a coincidence that it was the easiest one to produce).

It is of course extremely bad form for an author to say, “This cover is not what I envisioned, but it’s what I have to run with.” And I’ve heard horror stories about authors having no say whatsoever in their cover designs, so I was grateful to even have a voice.

For Outcaste, I not only had a voice, I had a cover artist who apparently looked inside my head, saw what I envisioned, and then created an even better version. It is, in a word, gorgeous. It’s a cover designed for mainstream science fiction/fantasy, which is where this book belongs. And it is beautifully emblematic of the journey our main character takes through this epic story.

Stacks with iPhone blog

Head on over to my author page on the Heartsome Publishing site to read the blurb and get a teaser of what this book is about. If you’re an e-book reader, you can pre-order a copy right there. If you prefer the paperback, I’ll be posting the Amazon link once that goes live just before the actual release — which is roaring right up on October 27.

And now back to my art production…just wait ’til you see the new Shield of Alsea.

Posted in good news, writing | 29 Comments

Gecko tail update

In the prior post, I predicted the gecko’s dropped tail would be stripped to bone by the end of the day. I forgot to check that night, but fortunately remembered the next morning.

I say fortunate because that was the morning our housekeeper makes her weekly visit, and I neglected to tell her not to clean up the bone on the veranda. (She’s used to such bizarre requests. For eight weeks I wouldn’t let her suck a spider web down the vacuum cleaner because I was feeding the spider. The week that spider finally expired was one of the happiest our poor housekeeper has ever experienced. She was positively jubilant sucking that dusty web away.)

Sure enough, when I got back home after teaching my Pilates class, the bone was long gone and the veranda was tidy. D’oh! I wanted to look at it with my wife’s geological loupe — I’ve never seen vertebrae that tiny.

But I did snap a photo before leaving for class, so with a little cropping and magnification, here is what a dropped gecko tail looks like after 36 hours.

Ants are efficient.

Gecko tail 2

Posted in biology | 6 Comments